The last two years have seen a massive blur of bokeh. Since someone decided to film something a 5D and declare it awesome, everything now has only one eye in focus. It’s crazy I tell you.
I like shallow DoF. I love knocking out the noise and business of a background so I can let it focus on my subject whatever that may be. It’s especially wonderful when I’m trying to pull off a high-end look in a small office. I can set the camera to 1.8 on a sensor the size of a Jack of Spades and blur everything up to my subjects ears. It’s wonderful.
But I don’t really like it on docs.
I won’t say hate it, but I really dislike it on documentaries. But docs are a different beast then fiction. And I also know there’s a natural (and I’m talking human eye) blurring but it’s a light blurring. Not the heavy, make-the-lights-bleed-into-each-other mash of color. It’s far more subtle. Documentaries are realistic by their very nature, the don’t do shallow DoF that well. It’s not natural.
The primary reason I like long(ish) DoF is that documentaries introduce you to people and these people always have an environment. To see them in their environment adds an entire element to their personality, character and what drives them to make the decisions they make and they have behave a certain way.
They’re always interacting with their environment. Who they talk to, where they live, what they do, etc. To remove them from their environment removes them from their context which is a key element of any story. Yes, the audience could learn the subject’s context through interview, but then you lose the power of the visual medium; the way to tell the story without words.
With docs in locations your audience may never get to this is even more critical. I believe the most effective story-telling in this case to bring your audience into the environment. Let them see it, hear it, experience it and in some cases, give them the choice to look where they want to look. You want them to connect with the character and part of that connection is the environment that person lives, moves and engages in on a daily basis. You can do any of this by blurring it all out!
I like to see stuff, so before you get all excited to whip out that 7D at 1.4, give a second look at that old 1/3” sensor camera that’s been on the shelf the last year and ask your self how much of the environment tells a story about your subject you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tell nearly as well with all that blur going on.